The handling of his case has been influenced throughout by other considerations. One was the fear that strong words on Mr Rushdie's behalf might damage attempts to restore Britain's battered diplomatic relations with Iran. Another was concern about Western hostages in the Middle East and a wish to do nothing that would harm them. A third was the desire not to give further unnecessary publicity to militant Muslims such as Dr Kalim Siddiqui, who had used the Rushdie affair to stir up religious trouble in Britain.
While all these matters deserved consideration, they should have been firmly treated as subordinate to the moral imperative; that everything should be done to get the fatwa lifted. Whether one felt kindly to Mr Rushdie or his writings was irrelevant. He admits that he has made some political errors, especially when he tried to convince the Iranians to call off their assassins by pretending, in one of his darkest moments, that he had become an observant Muslim. That is now behind him.
The Government is giving Mr Rushdie's case a good deal more prominence; earlier this month he was allowed to meet Douglas Hogg, a junior Foreign Office minister. Now it is time to do more. Mr Rushdie said yesterday that he detects 'a gradual acceleration of international interest' in his case. Other European countries, notably France and Germany, have come out in his support. Canada has withheld a dollars 1bn trade credit from Iran in protest at the country's failure to call off its fatwa. Norway has blocked a lucrative oil deal. Most importantly, the Clinton administration appears ready to link his case to the broader relations between the United States and Iran.
With such promising signs abroad there is much that the Government could do. Pressing for concerted action inside the European Community, or the Group of Seven industrial nations, is one thing; going to the International Court of Justice is another. While preliminary work is being done by officials on those matters, however, John Major could make an important gesture. Responding to Mr Rushdie's public request, he could invite him for a chat at No 10 and pose for photographers with him on the steps outside. He should declare that however offensive his book may be to Muslims, Britain will not see Mr Rushdie murdered by assassins sent from abroad - and that until the fatwa is lifted, Iran can expect no warmer relations with Britain or its allies.Reuse content